The VisiCalc-Moment of ChatGPT: 12 quick comments on the current ‘AI’ debate

Is ChatGPT just another productivity tool?

Boris Müller

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Screenshot of a VisiCalc Emulator. It was the first spreadsheet and the first ‘Killer App’.

A couple of quick thoughts on the current ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) debate:

  1. The purpose of a computer is automation. So the whole point of computers is the ability to automatically process specific tasks. As we can see on a daily basis, these tasks can be enormously complex. Nonetheless — everything that happens on a computer is automation. This includes the processes that we are currently calling ‘Artificial Intelligence’. There is no fundamental difference between automatically sorting numbers and automatically drawing pictures.
  2. It has been noted before — and I am happy to repeat it again: the terms ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and ‘Neural Networks’ are misleading. They suggest a biological agency where there is none. While the concepts are certainly inspired by nature, we are not dealing with biology. ‘Neural Network’ is a fancy name for a set of algorithms that can also be described as ‘non-linear statistical data modelling tools’. Less fancy, more accurate.
  3. With ChatGPT, ‘Artificial Intelligence’ has reached its VisiCalc moment. In case you don’t know what VisiCalc is: it was the first spreadsheet. In 1979, VisiCalc enabled users to compute and re-compute a large set of numerical relations. Change one value and the whole table is automatically updated. For its time, VisiCalc was extremely powerful and practical. It was the first application on a home computer that was really useful. The same is true for ChatGPT. It is the first AI application on a home computer that is truly useful. VisiCalc saved you the tedium of re-computing numeric data, ChatGPT saves you the tedium of writing text.
  4. In this sense, I suggest to treat ChatGPT simply as a productivity tool. It helps you to produce more text in a shorter amount of time. The quality varies — but it is good enough for most purposes. (I know this is a bit of an oversimplification. But at the same time we should not underestimate the impact of a good productivity tool.)
  5. The entire history of technology is about annihilating jobs. The cotton mills destroyed traditional spinning and weaving communities. The steam engine replaced muscle power. The…

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